Breaktime: Warren Roberts

It seems that arboretum superintendent Warren Roberts is as firmly rooted in the California landscape as the oaks he has watched grow along the paths of UC Davis for close to 30 years. He comes from a long line of Kern County cattle ranchers and says he inherited some of his plant know-how from a Gold Rush-era great-grandmother who was well respected for her knowledge of herbs.

Co-workers describe Roberts as a gregarious and generous punster, a great historian and a "stickler for using the right names for plants." He takes pride in being on the nomenclature committee for the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta as well as the botanical editor for the International Plant Propagators' Society.

Those co-workers who have known him the longest continue to be amazed at Roberts' depth of knowledge and his ability to connect with people. "He's an extraordinary storyteller," says arboretum curator Mary Burke, who has known Roberts since 1976.

"For many people, to see the significance of plants is a reach," she says. "Warren makes them significant through his storytelling." Roberts is famous for his informative and entertaining tours of the arboretum called "Walks with Warren."

Even with his long and devoted ties to California, Roberts has managed to see his share of the rest of the world. After receiving a bachelor's degree in landscape horticulture from UC Davis in 1964, he went to Peru as a Peace Corps volunteer. Two and a half years later, he returned to Davis and obtained his master's degree in 1969. Then, it was back to Peru with the Peace Corps to assess damages after the 1970 earthquake. Somewhere in between he managed to travel in Europe as well. Described as a "wonderful ambassador for the university," Roberts joined UC Davis as the arboretum superintendent in 1972.

He says he feels right at home in the arboretum. "I've been here for a long time and I have the institutional memory -- what has been done, which plants work, which don't."

However, Roberts admits that modern technology seems a bit foreign to him. "If I'm on a computer," he says, "there had better be someone close by." He doesn't let this rattle him too much, though, and the fact that he's a computer (cheese) whiz is often his topic of choice for puns.

"He's famous for his puns," says Ellen Zagory, collections manager for the arboretum, "and the sillier the better."

For an example of his penchant for humor, you might ask, how do you know when Warren has been on the computer? When there's White Out all over the screen.

What's your idea of perfect happiness?

What I'm doing now. Being comfortable. Loving and being loved, and doing the kinds of things I like to do. I like to work with plants and I like to work with people, and I get to do both.

Your idea of utter misery?

Utter misery would be sort of the opposite -- if I had to deal constantly with mean-spirited people…or with mathematics and money matters.

What book, if any, would you read over and over again? Why?

The Royal Horticulture Society's Plant Finder. It's a list of plants commercially available in Britain. This is one of my main nomenclators -- it's where I first go as a reference for plant names. But this book is only for those people who are annoyingly interested in the correct name. I'm one of those people. I look at a word and see its ancestry and its relationships.

What's your favorite spot on campus?

The arboretum.

And your favorite spot in the arboretum?

Who is your favorite child? I think it kind of boils down to that. There are a number of species of plants in the arboretum that are special either because of their age or beauty or because they are rare. (He points out the office window at a Pinus oaxacana, a bright green pine tree with cascading needles.) That's my favorite pine tree. And I love the oak trees in the oak grove and throughout the arboretum. I guess they're my favorite group because they're quite variable. Even some that people would say are ugly, I think are beautiful.

What has been your most inspirational experience?

Being raised in California. Not just one thing, but rather the process of being raised by a loving family and in such a wonderful and diverse place. The physical diversity and the cultural diversity -- I've always been interested in that. And, I've always been encouraged to be interested in that.

What's the best bit of advice you've ever been given? Why?

Play fair. It's the basis of the Golden Rule. You learn that as a little kid, if you're lucky, and I did. I think the tradition that I absorbed growing up is that you really do play fair -- you don't take advantage of others. This is especially important in California, which is so diverse.

What is something about you that others would be surprised to know?

A lot of people don't realize that I'm as old as I am. I'll be 60 in June. That probably surprises people more than anything else. And people don't realize that I'm fluent in Spanish.

What's your most treasured possession? Why?

Me. I'm the only thing that I really have -both physical and otherwise. If I don't think I'm important and valuable, how can I think anything else is?

What actor would play you in a movie about your life? Why?

John Goodman…why not? I'm not quite as large as he is but, you know, there's still time. I'm not as humorous as he is, but I see myself in him. He's sort of a large, white guy who is pretty open-minded.

If you could pass a universal law for campus, what would it be?

The Golden Rule. The only times I've ever seen trouble on campus were when this was not observed. True respect, encouragement of diversity, and absolute fair play. People complain about political correctness as being oppressive, but the alternative is so much worse.

Primary Category